Vatican Expert Explains Context of Bartholomew I's Visit

Father Dimitri Salakas, Consultor for Council on Christian Unity

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 28, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The arrival here of Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I is a testimony to "the particular bonds between the two Churches of the old and new Rome," says a Vatican expert on Catholic-Orthodox relations.



The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and his delegation arrived today in Rome. An exchange of delegations for the feast of St. Andrew in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, on Nov. 30, and for Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome on June 29 has become a tradition.

On Tuesday, feast of the patron saints of Rome, Bartholomew I, the "first among equals" in Orthodoxy, will attend the Mass at which John Paul II will preside.

The gesture of the visit has its origin "after the Second Vatican Council and the revocation of the respective excommunications of 1054," Father Dimitri Salakas, consultor for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and for other dicasteries, told Vatican Radio.

The revocation of the excommunications, the subsequent visits of official delegations, marked the time when "the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople inaugurated a new path toward unity," Father Salakas said.

"This fraternal exchange of visits and participation has now become a tradition, a sacred custom, which testifies to the particular bonds between the two Churches of the old and new Rome, in keeping with the language of the first ecumenical councils," the priest said.

"Moreover, these visits allow for conversations with the respective organizations of the Holy See and the ecumenical patriarchate on the state of ecclesial relations, on problems and difficulties that arise in the meantime, on the continuance of the theological dialogue, and on open ecumenical commitments and prospects," Father Salakas continued.

Although the Orthodox Churches are the ones closest to the Catholic Church, theological problems and differences exist, he said.

"The Holy Father pointed out an important one in the encyclical letter 'Ut Unum Sint,' that is, the ministry of the Bishop of Rome," so he has "asked theologians of the various Churches to seek together ways in which this ministry may carry out a ministry of love, recognized by one another," Father Salakas said.

"Another problem that is ever more serious is the way in which the Orthodox Churches see the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches, simply calling for their suppression," the priest said.

This difficulty "has been aggravated even more in these months because of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church's request to be raised to the rank of a Patriarchal Church," he continued.

"Obviously, the Orthodox request to suppress the Eastern Churches, in full communion with the Apostolic See, is unacceptable by the Catholic Church for doctrinal reasons," the Vatican consultor said.

"For the time being," he added, "I don't see how the problem can be resolved, especially after the letter that His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I wrote last November to the Holy Father, published on Internet. The problem, in any case, has already been discussed in the official theological dialogue between the two Churches."

What can Catholics and Orthodox exchange mutually? "The essentially common faith of sacramentality" and sense of ecclesiology, the Vatican expert replied.

He continued: "The Catholic Church has modified essentially her canonical and pastoral normative and her attitude toward the Orthodox faithful, for example, on mixed marriages, on communication, on the sacraments of the Eucharist and of penance, on the anointing of the sick."

"However," he added, "it must be noted that the Orthodox Churches remain stable on this matter. Still lacking is the legitimate reciprocity desired by the recent ecumenical directorate. The Orthodox Churches and their theologians must clarify their point of view on the 'ecclesiality' and 'sacramentality' of the Catholic Church."

Father Salakas explained that, as "first among equals," Bartholomew I does not exercise power within the other Orthodox Churches. Rather, he "coordinates the initiatives at the pan-Orthodox level, … the pan-Orthodox ecumenical commitment and the official dialogue of the Orthodox Churches with the Catholic Church and the other Churches," the priest said.

All this is done in such a way that the ecumenical patriarchate "is a point of reference, of fraternal agreement among all the Orthodox Churches," he concluded.